Truth is a Thing
Truth is “a thing,” to use the current jargon. Today’s memorial of St. Athanasius, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, commemorates a man who suffered greatly to safeguard the Truth of Jesus Christ. The 4th century theologian and Bishop of Alexandria dedicated his life to fighting the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. The Arians were tenacious and unforgiving in their attacks on Athanasius. He “was banished five times and spent 17 years of his life in exile for the defense of the doctrine of Christ’s divinity” (St. Athanasius, catholic.org). At times he was opposed by a wide array of bishops, as well as the Roman emperor himself. He appeared to be standing alone in defense of orthodox Chrstian belief. His lonely stance earned him the nickname Athanasius Contra Mundum (Athanasius Against the World).
The battle for Truth continues today. The modern day descendants of the Arians are still with us. There are still those, even bishops, who would turn the Church of Jesus Christ into something more worldly. We still need Catholic Christians to stand up and proclaim, as St. Athanasius did, that Truth is a Thing.
A Grim Trajectory
In honor of today’s Memorial of St. Athanasius I’m revisiting a piece I first published on November 21st, 2014. Much has changed since then: I no longer teach in a Catholic school, for instance. Anthony Esolen likewise no longer teaches in the nominally Catholic college he has sometimes referred to as “St. Eustaby” (pronounced “Saint Used-To-Be”, as in used to be Catholic). By all reports he’s finding the environment and student body at Magdalen College in Warner, NH, much more attuned to the traditional Catholic understanding of God and His universe.
In the world outside, however, things have travelled even further along the same grim trajectory. Just as ecclesiastical and temporal powers joined forces against Athanasius, powerful institutions of our day are uniting to impose an alternative “truth.” Today, they deny even such basic natural truths as the difference between the two sexes. Read on to see why, more than ever, we need to assert that Truth is a Thing.
Athanasius Against the World
Let’s go back in time to the fall of 2014. I’ll share just a couple of the highlights, or better yet lowlights. There was the Sunday when I found myself berated from the pulpit. Not me personally, but me and people like me. We were bad Catholics because we expected Catholic clergy to speak out in support of the Church’s moral teaching on issues such as abortion, marriage, serial adultery, etc. We were told we should be more like the Pope, welcoming everyone with a wink and nod. We should just stick to talking about Jesus (too bad Pope Francis didn’t get the memo: see here).
Then there was a Friday afternoon. This time I found myself trying to explain the Church’s teaching on human sexuality to a classroom full of fourteen-year-olds. My young theology students found my assertion that one need not indulge any and every sexual desire to be novel and inexplicably bizarre. I began to feel a little bit like Athanasius Contra Mundum. Shouldn’t these kids have heard this somewhere before, or from someone, anyone, beyond their 9th grade religion teacher? Even students from church-going families seemed unfamiliar with the idea that there is a real alternative to the self-righteous libertinism of the popular culture. This particular group was not unique. I had been seeing it more and more over the years.
The Good Professor Says His Piece
Coincidentally (perhaps?), when I arrived home that same day my lovely bride wanted to share an article with me. Anthony Esolen had just published a piece in Crisis (“Who Will Rescue the Lost Sheep of the Lonely Revolution?”). Apparently, Dr. Esolen was also getting rather frustrated with trying to reach students who have grown up immersed in the grim propaganda of the sexual revolution. In his article he addressed himself, not to the students themselves, but to the adults responsible for their moral formation:
Let me speak up for the young people who see the beauty of the moral law and the teachings of the Church, and who are blessed with noble aspirations, but who are given no help, none, from their listless parents, their listless churches, their crude and cynical classmates, their corrupted schools.
These youths and maidens in a healthier time would be youths and maidens indeed, and when they married they would become the heart of any parish. Do we expect heroic sanctity from them? Their very friendliness will work against them. They will fall. Do you care? Many of these will eventually “shack up,” and some will leave dead children in the wake of their friendliness.
Where are you? You say that they should not kill the children they have begotten, and you are right about that. So why are you shrugging and turning aside from the very habits that bring children into the world outside of the haven of marriage?
The Self-Help Guy Agrees
Esolen makes a number of important points. First, that our culture is toxic. Next, that its moral corruption has very real material consequences. Finally, and most damning, that we have largely abandoned our young people to it.
Some years ago the late self-help author Stephen Covey made a similar argument:
In the past, it was easier to successfully raise a family ‘out-side-in’ because society was an ally, a resource. People were surrounded by role models, examples, media reinforcement, and family-friendly laws and support systems that sustained marriage and helped create strong families. Even when there were problems within the family, there was still this powerful reinforcement of the whole idea of successful marriage and family life . . . (Stephen Covey, The7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, p. 15).
After the Revolution
That is no longer the case. In fact, society now actively subverts parents’ efforts to raise their children: it is, as Covey puts it, “family-fatal”. He marshals an impressive array of statistics (he cites sources for all of these in his book) to support his assertion:
- Illegitimate birth rates have increased more than 400 percent.
- The percentage of families headed by a single parent has more than tripled.
- The divorce rate has more than doubled. Many project that about half of all new marriages will end in divorce.
- Teenage suicide has increased almost 300 percent.
- Scholastic Aptitude Test scores among all students have dropped 73 points.
- The number one health problem for American women today is domestic violence, four million women are beaten each year by their partners.
- One fourth of all adolescents contract a sexually transmitted disease before they graduate from high school.
- Since 1940 the top disciplinary problems in public schools have changed from chewing gum and running in the halls to teen pregnancy, rape, and assault. (Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families, p. 16)
Covey’s book was published in 1997. I guarantee that these statistics have not changed for the better in the intervening 25 years. And these are only some of the more obvious bad consequences of what Esolen calls the “Lonely Revolution.”
Who Needs Those Goofy Rules Anyway?
But don’t take my word for it. Almost two decades later, the Catholic News Agency brought us “Agree to Disagree: Why Young Catholics Pose a Unique Challenge For the Church.” The U.S. bishops had commissioned a study of young Catholics. Even those who considered themselves devout felt free to ignore “’goofy’ rules” that they did’t like:
If any Church teachings conflict with their own perceptions, young people simply “tune out” the teachings.
“They agree to disagree with the Church,” [Archbishop Thomas Wenski] said.
Furthermore, young Catholics are sensitive to language that could imply judgment. “For them, language like ‘hate the sin love the sinner’ means ‘hate the sinner’,” Archbishop Wenski said.
The last sentence gives the game away, even if the article does not explicitly say which particular “goofy” rules are at issue. The conflation of the sin with the sinner is a preferred tactic that the storm troopers of the Sexual Revolution. They often employ it in conjunction with the damning charge of “judgmentalism” to lead good Christians into error. Truth is not a thing for the revolutionaries.
Qui Bene Distinguit, Bene Docet
The Church, on the other hand, follows the old legal maxim Qui bene distinguit, bene docet. In English, “he who distinguishes well, teaches well.” She has always understood that “hating the sin” is not the same as “hating the sinner.” In fact, if we love the sinner we must hate the sin, because sin poisons the soul of the sinner. Notice, by the way, the Latin word docet, “teach.” It comes from the same root as doctrine. Doctrine is the sacred teaching of the Church.
If those responsible for teaching doctrine don’t teach, then those under their tutelage will be left to the teaching of the World. We have seen that the World “does not distinguish,” non distinguit. In fact, it intentionally fails to do so, in order to deceive. Is it any wonder, then, that our young people also non distinguunt? The Church is supposed to be a Sign of Contradiction (Luke 2:34). If all she offers in the face of sin is a Nod and a Wink, however, what is she teaching? How is any distinction possible between her teaching and what the Conventional Wisdom has on offer? Do we not then give tacit assent?
Where’s That in The Bible?
The underlying problem is not a new one. Let’s go back a little further into the past, to the Book of the Prophet Ezekial:
If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you will have saved your life. (Ezekial 3:18-19)
But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but you will have saved your life. (Ezekial 3:18-19)
Ezekial, by Michelangelo, 1508-1512
A Prophetic Office
All of us baptized Christians have a prophetic office, and the warning addressed to Ezekial above applies to all of us, as the Letter of James tells us:
My brethren, if any one among you wanders from the truth and some one brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:19-20)
When it comes to guiding the young, our Lord himself puts the matter even more starkly:
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)
Avoiding unpleasant truths, it seems, is not an option.
The Truth That is The Thing
Let’s return briefly to the scolding homilist I mentioned above. He’s correct that we need to model the love of Jesus. We do that, however, when we speak the Truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). When we distinguish between the sin and the sinner, we can show that we hate the sin because of our love for the sinner, because we understand the harm it is doing him.
I once heard a Catholic radio host wrap up his show with a nice summation of this truth. “The worst thing you can do for somebody” he said, “is to allow him to wallow in sin.” That’s exactly right. It is more loving to warn a person about sin, with all its painful consequences, than to leave them ignorant of something that’s destroying them. That’s the truth, and truth is indeed a thing. Yes, we should talk about Jesus, by all means. And didn’t he suffer and die for the express purpose of saving us from sin?
Go and Sin No More
I’m not saying we should be mean, or accusatory, or call people names. We do, however, need to recognize, as Anthony Esolen points out, that the currently popular sexual sins are not simply harmless “peccadilloes.” Sexual sin destroys families and ruins lives. It puts people in danger of being lost . . . forever. Jesus saved the woman caught in adultery from stoning, but he also told her: “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). We all, and particularly those of us who are parents, teachers, and leaders, should be prepared to say the same.